Arms Control: Shedding Light or Setting Fires?

Posted: April 29, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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Arms Control: Shedding Light or Setting Fires?

By Mark Stout

It is not armaments that cause war, but war that causes armaments.

Salvador de Madariaga

Note: the original version of this article appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff.

It’s been said that human beings are the only creatures who can lie to themselves.  As such, one of the greatest challenges the national security community faces is profoundly simple: to not deceive itself.  Said another way, national security leadership needs to deal with the world as it is and not as it’s wished to be. 

What is one of the more important manifestations of this concept today?  That more focus should be placed on dealing with ever-increasing nuclear proliferation (the world as it is) rather than in trying to build a world free of nuclear weapons (the world as it’s wished to be).  Regardless, both worlds require international will, agreements, and discipline which are likely to be significantly dissimilar to traditional arms control agreements. 

A general pattern of Cold War arms control thinking goes something like this: nuclear weapons are terrifying and can destroy the world.  Therefore nuclear weapons need to be reduced (well, really eliminated, but that was a bridge too far).  When the weapons count was reduced, arms control was the driving event in forcing reductions.  Since World War III did not occur, arms control must have prevented nuclear war.  Therefore, arms control is the road to enhanced security.  Neo-Cold War arms control thinking is little different. 

Sadly, this is a form of wrong-thinking at best, and self-deception at worst, made manifest in an attempt to incorrectly assign correlation (the presence of arms control and nuclear weapons) as causation (arms control prevents nuclear wars).  The actual cause and effect relationships in such events are far too complex to disprove or prove, but because certain members of the arms control community have much to gain in terms of prestige and standing, the causation hypothesis has been institutionalized in their collective minds’ eye.  While this leads arms controllers to relentlessly campaign for jobs they already have, the reality is simpler: when the costs of being a nuclear weapons state exceed the benefits of having nuclear weapons, de-proliferation will occur.

A world without nuclear weapons is likely to reflect several different outcomes, and not all are necessarily good.  It might mean that nuclear weapons have been made obsolete by defensive nuclear weapons technologies which render offensive nuclear attack impotent.  While that’s not bad, it could instead mean that nuclear weapons have been overtaken by even more destructive and terrifying weapons.  Also, would a world without nuclear weapons make full-on (think about the total war and mass-attrition warfare practiced in World War II) conventional war more or less likely? 

Regardless of the desirability or nondesirability of these outcomes, there is also the issue of the probability of such outcomes.  Probability-wise, the path to global zero is unlikely indeed.  What would be required?  An ahistorical humanity capable of creating a 1) cheat-free universal and simultaneous nuclear disarming based on 2) an inviolate and enduringly unified international community which would 3) control the knowledge, materials, and manufacturing skills needed to create nuclear weapons.  Can such a future exist? 

Today, there is no indication the world is trending towards a nuclear weapons free future with plenty of evidence that the opposite is true.  While the New START may indeed see deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons at the lowest level since the 1950s, the call for yet another U.S.-Russian bilateral treaty obviates the importance of dealing with the world as it is, where more nations than ever before have nuclear weapons and more still are on track or pondering becoming nuclear weapons states. 

With the push for more nuclear treaties with Russia, it makes sense to ask “How does the threat of Russian nuclear weapons compare with the threat of nuclear terrorism?”  Additionally, what’s in it for the Russians (who possess an estimated ten-to-one tactical nuclear weapon advantage over the U.S. and its allies) and how will such an arms control treaty benefit their security goals?  One would think the U.S. will be asked to give something up, but what will that be?  Missile defense?  The U.S. provided nuclear umbrella for NATO states?  Something else?

Unfortunately, unvarnished arms control boosterism seems to serve in the imaginations of many as a generic solution to any security issue.  Personally, I’d be in favor of letting the Russians have a thousand weapon numerical advantage forever if it would mean North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan would give up their nuclear weapons programs.  However, since these nations won’t give up their nuclear weapons programs, we should work on the world as it is and take actions that will enhance our security.  This includes civil defense and missile defense, without ignoring other actions such as multilateral international agreements, if they will help enhance our security.

The April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review lists its number one objective as “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism” and goes on to say “today’s most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism.”  History shows the problem with arms control isn’t that it hasn’t been given a chance to succeed.  Rather, the problem with arms control is that an anti-proliferation breakthrough success with China and other nuclear states, like the song Tomorrow in the movie Annie, is always a day away.  “This time it’ll be different,” is the theme.  “No, it won’t,” is the reality that must be dealt with. 

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s National Space Studies Center and runs its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.


  1. AmandaK says:

    As far as national security goes to prevent an EMP from happening, I’ve been researching a bit. This is because when I heard about EMP and noticed that not a lot of people are aware of it, not even some people in Congress… I wanted to find more out about it for myself. I came across a guy named James Woolsey; he is “a hero in the world of national security.” He’s going to be on a Radio Blog show in a couple weeks on Wednesday August 3rd. I think it’d be great to check out. I’ve listened to some other shows on their site and they have all been excellent. I don’t see this one being anything short of that. If you want to check it out, here’s the link:

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